How the good neighbourhood can reconnect us with our common humanity
This issue sees the conclusion of The Big Rethink, the AR’s campaign to articulate a new vision of the potential of architecture and how it can re-engage more resonantly with wider social and human concerns. Underscoring the series has been the question ‘How do we want to live?’, and in this final chapter Peter Buchanan addresses this more explicitly in his proposal for a prototypical neighbourhood that encompasses and elaborates on many of the ideas discussed in the series. ‘Because’, as he writes, ‘progress towards a true sustainability and its concomitant way of life cannot be delivered only by buildings’.
The concept of the neighbourhood also forms the broader theme of this issue, with guest editor Isabel Allen eloquently arguing that neighbourhoods should be socially as well as physically constructed. In the silo-isation of the different but complementary disciplines of architecture and planning, the neighbourhood can easily get lost; yet as a schema for individual and communal life it is crucial to how we connect with and make sense of our surroundings. Londoners, for instance, tend to envisage the metropolis as an organic patchwork of diverse and distinct neighbourhoods, each with their own character, history and cachet.
Within the more extreme manifestations of urban and suburban life, the pervading anomie, homogeneity and commodification can easily inculcate a sense of social and psychological dislocation. The neighbourhood, by contrast, implies manageable scale, familiarity, different sorts of activities, nuance, connectivity and communality; what Lucy Musgrave calls ‘the lived experience of urban life’.
So why is it so hard to design ‘good’ neighbourhoods that chime with wider human experience? Why do the more memorable ones always feel more serendipitously evolved than formally planned, the outcome of informal, bottom-up regeneration, usually involving the re-use of existing structures and people willing to take chances?
‘Neighbourhoods have a complex identity’, writes Musgrave ‘that is the embodiment of layered meanings and varied perspectives − the social within the built characteristics that define physical form, and the multiple uses that inform activity. Understanding this combination, a layered and complex picture of urban life is crucial to their success, to their ability to thrive, adapt and sustain change in the long term.’
There are clear lessons here for ‘how we want to live’, but as The Big Rethink has shown, we must have the courage, both as professionals and individuals, to challenge preconceptions. Only then can we achieve a truly good life, at ease with ourselves and our neighbours. And only then can we ‘return to the centre of architectural concern, the celebration of our humanity’, as Buchanan concludes.
Yet this is not quite the end. Now that the series is finished, we plan to canvass other voices and views, so that we can sustain and extend this crucial conversation.